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What is Comparative Fault and Joint & Several Liability in Car Accident Cases?

Law of Comparative Fault

Often times in car accident cases there may be more than one negligent party who is responsible for the accident. The State of Washington follows the law of comparative negligence (also called comparative fault). This term means that more than one party may be responsible for a person's injuries and damages according to each party’s percentage of negligence.

For example, let’s say Party A and Party B both negligently caused a car accident that injured Party C. And Party C's damages were calculated at $100,000. Party A was found 25% responsible and Party B 75%. Party A’s share of Party C's damages is just $25,000 and Party B’s share is $75,000. Under the law of comparative fault, each negligent party is only responsible for its share of damages as determined by the jury (or a judge if the matter is tried without a jury, i.e., bench trial).

Law of Joint and Several Liability

In Washington, there is an exception to the rule of comparative fault. That exception occurs when the injured person is considered fault-free. In that situation, if there are multiple negligent parties who have caused injury to a person then each negligent party will be jointly and severally liable for all damages. This means that each negligent party is also individually responsible for 100% of the damages and not just limited to his or her respective share of fault.

Take the example of Party A and Party B above. If joint and several liability exists, then Party A is liable for the full amount of Party C's damages calculated at $100,000, and not just limited to Party A’s proportionate share of $25,000. This is the same for Party B, who is also responsible for the full award of $100,000 owed to Party C and not just Party B’s share of $75,000.

Some people question whether the law of joint and several liability is fair or just. Sometimes a negligent party who shares a very small percentage of fault could be legally required to pay a much higher percentage of the injured person’s damages. For example, if Party A was only found to be 1% at fault and Party B 99% at fault, Party A could still be made to pay much more than its share of $1,000 of Party C's total damages.

Let’s say Party B is uninsured and has no money to pay a verdict. Then Party A could be liable for the full $100,000. Is this fair? Well, the rationale behind joint and several liability is that it is more just to fully compensate an innocent victim than to allow a negligent party to limit his or her share of damages to that actor’s proportionate share of fault. If you agree with the policy of protecting innocent victims, then the rationale of joint and several liability makes sense.

Other legal commentators have noted that joint and several liability benefits society by effectively placing the economic burden on those who can afford it most (e.g., corporations, governmental entities, insurance companies, etc.) while at the same time protecting the innocent victim who has been harmed. See Guido Calabresi & Jon T. Hirschoff, Toward a Test for Strict Liability in Torts, 81 YALE L.J. 1055 (1972).

In any event, people who have been seriously injured in a car accident that is caused by more than one person or entity, may face important legal questions or hurdles about the share of damages that may be apportioned to each negligent party. Sometimes this issue raises complex questions about legal strategy, and may also involve questions about whether to settle with just one party and not the other, which party do you settle with, and for how much. In those situations it is usually advisable to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney for your car accident claim.

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